Kenneth Cole's appearance on Chelsea Lately last week was meant to promote the documentary he produced about the history of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (The Battle of AmFAR). Instead, the shoe designer insulted gay activists everywhere.
When asked by Chelsea Handler how he became involved in AIDS research, the (straight) designer replied, "This was like 25 years ago and people weren't talking about AIDS then because stigma was so devastating (and arguably stigma has killed more people than the virus itself has), and the gay community wasn't speaking up, they were afraid to."
Let's see. Twenty-five years ago gay people like myself were in our fifth year of AIDS activism, community service, and weekly memorials. We were screaming as loud as we could. And because of our voices, things changed, despite Cole's inaccurate observations.
The first person to call out Cole's ignorance was iconic activist Sean Strub, founder of POZ Magazine and author of the upcoming AIDS memoir, Body Counts. Strub's posting, "Kenneth Cole Needs a History Lesson," has been gaining traction since it published on Friday:
I've got news for Ken Cole. Twenty-five years ago, it was almost solely members of the gay community who were speaking up about AIDS. In fact, in 1987, the executive directors of almost all the national lesbian and gay organizations protested government inaction in an act of civil disobedience and got arrested in front of the White House.
Cole's remarks are part of a larger tendency of people re-framing AIDS history to suit their own purposes, in this case, promoting the amfAR documentary and canonizing two of its founders, Mathilde Krim and Elizabeth Taylor. And a storyline in which the straights come to rescue the diseased gays, I might add, may assuage heterosexual guilt for their own inaction.
For his part, Kenneth Cole responded to my Twitter tirade about the vital role of the gay community during early AIDS by tweeting, "@MyFabDisease agree, our film Battle of amfAR confirms your point. I was saying that because of stigma, many others were reluctant to speak."
But regrettably, the HBO documentary doesn't confirm the role of gay community at all. In fact, it minimizes it.